THE BIG INTERVIEW: Right at Home chief executive Ken Deary

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The chief executive of Right at Home knows a thing or two about hard work. A former building labourer, postman and street sweeper, Ken Deary went on become a senior accountant of a FTSE top 30 insurance company before making the bold move into franchising.

Deary joined McDonald’s in 1994, opening a store in Southport and three other locations over 11 years. During that time, he won the British Franchise Association Franchisee of the Year award and the prestigious Golden Arch award.

In 2001, he sold out of McDonald’s and bought a residential home in East Lancashire, where he gained invaluable experience in the care sector.

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But Deary was never one to do things by halves – he had big ambitious to grow a national company that made a difference to peoples’ lives. So in 2010 he brought together his franchising and care experience to launch Right at Home, a successful US company, in the UK.

In 2011, he opened Right at Home’s first UK franchised office in Sutton, and eight years on, the business is now an award-winning franchise network with 60 plus offices across England and Wales.

In an exclusive interview with Home Care Insight, Deary explains what it takes to become a successful franchisee against a background of sector challenges, and shares his ambitious for the future of Right at Home.

It’s been 10 years since you bought the licence to set up Right at Home in the UK, but you were previously an award-winning franchisee for McDonald’s. What made you make the move into home care?
McDonald’s was a great company to work for – I made lots of friends and learned loads, but I wanted to work in a business that really gave me a feel-good factor. I wanted to come into work and feel like I was making a difference every day, and the home care sector offered that.

Right at Home recognised its workforce at its annual Celebration Awards in September.

What transferable skills have you taken from McDonald’s and applied to your role at Right at Home?
McDonald’s is customer service oriented, so getting it right for the customer is paramount, as is attention to detail, which is so important in the home care sector. Also, we have grown our business through franchising because my McDonald’s experience taught me that engaged franchisees really care about their businesses and will go that extra mile for their clients and staff. They tend to outperform managers because they have a real interest in the business. If you look at the amount of ratings we have received over the last 18 months, we have had 41% rated Outstanding, and I’m not convinced we could do that with a management-based, company-owned business. So I learned how to get the best out of franchisees, listen to them, treat them with respect, and to get everyone pulling in the same direction. Whether you like McDonald’s or not, over all those years of operating, it has stayed current, and there’s not many companies that can do that.

We need political parties that listen and understand detail, rather than making vote-winning promises that fit their agenda.

You have won multiple awards during your time as a McDonald’s franchisee, as have your Right at Home business owners. What does it take to reach the top in franchising?
You need a basic skill of being able to pick up the fundamentals of running a business and a winning mindset to keep ploughing through when you face challenging moments. It is also important to follow a franchise model that has been diligently worked out over many years. Furthermore, successful franchisees have an empathy with the sector they work in, such as care, which makes the work so much more enjoyable.   

Right at Home’s national office team supported Dementia Action Week this year by sharing knowledge and advice in a series of blog posts.

Right at Home was set up in the US in 1995. What does the structure of the UK operation look like?
We have 15 National Office staff based either regionally or in our head office in Liverpool. They support approximately 60 franchise territories, and I say approximately because we are growing all the time. The UK operates totally independent from the US and all of our decisions are made here. However, we do share knowledge and best practice with our international partners, which makes us a very powerful, proactive international network.

The UK is run very much as a co-operative network. That may sound strange because myself, as the CEO, and our COO Lucy Campbell have to deliver the big issues like strategy, but we also realise that everyone wants a voice, so we always make sure we listen to our franchisees and gather all of their opinions before we make decisions that affect the majority of the network.

What does your typical working day look like?
When I first started the business, like any new business owner I worked virtually 24/7. I built the business up from the very basics of picking the operating systems to getting all the paperwork together. But what’s happened is that we now have some very talented people in the organisation and my role now is more akin to strategy and where the business is going. I just love the team that we have and I have so much respect for them. So, in a way, it seems my role has got easier because I have more time to think about strategy and work with our franchisees on what is important to us.

Could you tell me about the sort of culture that exists within Right at Home UK?
I could sum that up in one word and that’s ‘supportive’. To give more detail, we believe we all go the extra mile to support each other. Teamwork is everything to Right at Home UK. It’s a lovely environment to work in.

Right at Home’s Solent and Southampton branch picked up the Franchisee of the Year Award at the 2019 bfa Franchise Awards in July.

Who are your main competitors and how do you differ from them?
I don’t see them so much as competitors as we are all in this to benefit the vulnerable adults that we serve. There are many businesses in this sector that I totally respect, and there are good parts of their operations that we can learn from and vice versa. I guess, if there is a difference between our business and others, then it’s our ability to make decisions very quickly and the lovely family feel amongst our staff and franchise owners.

It’s about time people started talking up this sector because it is a fantastic sector… I’m sick to death of reading bad press about care.

Which businesses, both in and out of the care sector, do you take inspiration from?
That’s quite a hard one as I take inspiration from many companies and individuals. You have got to admire McDonald’s for its attention to detail and ability to stay current for so long. I also admire Apple for its forward-thinking ideas. But I take a lot of my inspiration from our individual franchise owners. Last year, the owner of our Loughton franchise [Almas Adam] won the Young Franchisee of the Year award, and this year Kev and Amy Popat, owners of the Solent and Southampton branch, won the Franchisee of the Year award at the bfa Franchise Awards, which is fantastic.

What was your business strategy when you first established Right at Home UK? And has your strategy changed since then?
When I first started my vision was to build a company around trust and quality and although we have refined the model along the way, this strategy hasn’t changed.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced since you launched the business?
The biggest challenge facing the sector – and you don’t have to be Einstein to work this one out – is the recruitment and retention of good quality staff to match the growing demand for services. We work very hard on this area, with a great emphasis on looking after our staff and being very current on the best ways to recruit and retain. I do feel that we are ahead of the curve against most companies on these initiatives and we need to retain our focus on this.

Right at Home’s Nottingham branch was awarded an Outstanding rating by the CQC earlier this year.

Why do you think retaining quality care workers is such a big challenge?
I think the role has been totally undervalued. I get sick to death of reading bad press about care providers. You might get one bad case out of 100,000 visits and that’s all the press focuses on. It’s about time people started talking up this sector because it is a fantastic sector and the people who work in it are such lovely people. Also, people shouldn’t be describing themselves as “just a care worker” because these people are changing people’s lives. You go into businesses where people have fancy titles, but are they doing anything that’s really meaningful? These guys are.

We can only take on government packages that allow us to pay our staff well, operate sustainably and cover the necessary costs.

How have you seen the home care market evolve over the years?
I’ve seen growth in high quality franchising brands and they are now starting to lead the way in terms of things like ‘Outstanding’ ratings, awards and recruitment practices. What I have also seen is a decline in providers who are chasing low-margin government work, such as Allied. In addition, there’s been a growth in choice for clients. Before, you could only get care from local government and receive short visit times, but people are more discerning now and want choice, and so more companies are offering that.

How have you been affected by cuts to state funding?  
Currently, state funding does not have a major impact on our ability to deliver our services and achieve business growth because there is a high demand for high quality private home care. However, we are not just a provider of private care and we do work with the NHS and local government to provide care for those funded by the state. Government work is certainly an important part of our business, but having seen companies go out of business and others hand back contracts, we can only take on government packages that allow us to pay our staff well, operate sustainably and cover the necessary costs. Therefore, cuts in state funding that lead to unsustainable rates means that, disappointingly, we cannot work with local government in certain areas of the country.

Helen Garland (second from right), the registered manager for Right at Home Bournemouth and Poole, was named the Woman Franchise Employee of the Year at the 2019 NatWest Encouraging Women into Franchising Awards.

The need for social care reform has been repeatedly spoken about in Parliament over the years, with politicians promising to fix a broken system. With ongoing cuts to social care funding and a growing vacancy rate, is there hope for the future?
Of course there is. The way I look at it, you make your own future in life. I recently read one of the political party strategies for home care and it made me wonder whether they actually spoke to anyone in the sector. It showed very little understanding of what the key challenges and issues are in our sector, and how to work together to fix it. In fact, it smacked of arrogance that they knew all the answers without working in the sector. There’s a need for both government-supported care and private care to work together, and of course there is a solution, but it’s a solution the supports the needs of all people and providers. We need political parties that listen and understand detail, rather than making vote-winning promises that fit their agenda and that may never be delivered. I wish MPs would stop playing politics and work with people in the sector to better clients’ lives.

What projects are you working on at the moment in terms of campaigns, community projects, new services etc?
Without revealing too much about our operational plan for next year, we are firmly focused on supporting our franchise owners to creatively overcome the sector challenges and to make the positive incremental changes needed to support our clients. We’ll also refine our services in order to remain current and focus on recruitment, innovation and brand development as part of our strategy.

Right at Home aims to become the UK’s most trusted home care provider.

What are your goals for 2020 and beyond?
For me personally, I want to continue enjoying the business as much as I do now. I love working with our franchise owners, our highly motivated national office staff and supporting our clients. When you love what you do it doesn’t feel like work. As a business, we have many objectives, but in summary, our goal in the lead up to 2025 is to become the most trusted brand in UK home care. I don’t think we’ll ever be the biggest care provider because we want to concentrate on quality and trust. But trust only comes from doing everything ethically to the very highest standards – both of which are paramount to the future of Right at Home UK.  

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Sarah Clarke

The author Sarah Clarke

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